SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
A Passage to Somewhere
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, explains why the Cathedral’s north and south aisles shouldn’t be ignored…
That’s the problem with cathedral aisles. It’s too easy to see them as just passages, walkways, routes to somewhere else. It’s certainly true of the north and south aisles of Newcastle Cathedral. In both cases, they offer rather beautiful and elegant frames to the windows of the eastern chapels – I guess in that sense they are the only remnants of the famous ‘long view’ which was interrupted by the introduction of the Quire in 1882. They are both busy pathways; the north takes people to St George’s Chapel and on to the Cathedral Hall and WC facilities, while the south aisle leads to the vestry and the Song School. Both come into their own as spaces to line up processions or to prepare for major liturgies. But seeing them simply in these terms is a sad reductionism; it fails to recognise them for what they really are and aids us missing some lovely ‘stuff’.
Of course, we are quite good at such reductionism. It has a distinct shadow side when for example, a patient becomes “the mastectomy in bed 4” or a child be can be seen simply as “clown in class 6”. It can also be brutal making a concrete monstrosity into a functional but ugly car park or a block of flats that struggle to become homes. Just occasionally, though, beauty can refuse to be diminished this way – take the functional but elegant iPhone, or the Bauhaus chair or one of the magnificent and characterful Tube or railway stations that one rushes through to catch a train or Tube. And perhaps more poignantly, such as when the geriatric patient is honoured as the smiling wise elder. Passageways can be treated the same, becoming not just a route to follow but a beauty to admire or a maze to inspire: a place in which to pause and wonder. As local examples, take the curious Pink Lane, the steep Side and Dog Leap Stairs or the magisterial Grey Street.
But come back with me to the Cathedral’s north and south aisles. This week the plastic sheets that have been separating the main nave as a construction site, and providing at least a little protection from the dust, are being taken down – a new welcome milestone in the restoration works. But before we get mesmerised by the ‘new’ nave… which I am sure we will – and a while before we get used to scurrying up the aisle to use the ‘facilities’ or to seek the Verger, I want to add my little bit to combat the natural tendency to reduce these magical spaces to mere ‘passageways to somewhere’ and see them in their own right.
The North Aisle
Of course, the north aisle contains the entrance to St George’s Chapel and the door to the courtyard, as well as the main link to the Cathedral Hall and those well-used ‘facilities’. It also provides a lovely frame to the resurrection window and Chapel at the East, and if you stretch just a bit further, you can glimpse the Danish Memorial. However, before you get to the doors or the east end, at least three other jewels are worthy of inspection.
As you pass through the gateway from the nave, look immediately to the right, and you will see a magical cupboard behind which the Cathedral Organist has a small but crucial home. Behind the door is the organ loft crammed with ivory manual, pedalboard and a perplexing range of stops – thankfully not to our organists. This is the epicentre of Cathedral music-making and has been for many a year. Arguably the most famous of Director of Music Ian Robert’s predecessors is Charles Avison. Indeed, there still exists a very active Avison Appreciation Society in Newcastle. Charles Avison the elder was appointed as St Nicholas’ organist in 1736, moving to us from St John’s, Grainger Street.
Interestingly in 1748, he was also allowed to be organist at St John’s; he never actually took up the post but appointed his son, also Charles, to work at St John’s. A family affair! Avison the Elder was not free of controversy; you can read some interesting correspondence between him and Dr Hayes, professor of music at Oxford University which is far from courteous. He published many compositions, which include concertos for violin, sonatas for harpsichord as well as choral works. “He was an ingenious and polished man, esteemed and respected by all who knew him,” writes Mackenzie in his Guide to Newcastle (1847).
In passing here, don’t miss the memorial to Major Robert Buggin (Citizen and Haberdasher of London who died 1688) – the name alone makes me smile every time I read it!
Another glory of the north aisle has to be its stained glass. Have you ever stopped and looked up? Why not do it now with me? The windows to the left are very beautiful and follow a reasonably coordinated scheme of glazing. Just beyond St George’s, the window, by the not so well-known Bacon Bros, depicts the prophetic teaching of Christ. Its design was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895. Moving east, the biblical passion account is pursued, culminating in Christ’s arrest and trial. There are windows by George Eamer Kempe, that quintessential ‘Anglo-Catholic’ artist who achieved some notoriety by dressing up the protestant Bishop of Gloucester in full high church vestments in a window at the Cathedral. Next is a window by Herbert Bryans (who was one of Kempe’s best imitators) signed with the family mark of a running greyhound! It has a richness of colour with light-filled stipple painting – the critics tell me. It’s certainly worth a pause.
When in a scurry to the loos, it’s too easy to miss the window above the doors to the hall. This glorious window is the only one in St Nicholas’ to be designed (and indeed made) by a woman – the wonderful Caroline Charlotte Townshend. Her mother’s family were from Newcastle, and both mother and daughter were members of the Fabian Society and involved in the campaign for Women’s Suffrage. Her uncle (Thomas George Gibson, a Mayor and alderman of the city) was the window’s donor. The window adopts the general format of the other windows in the aisle, but some would suggest it should be seen as a witty critique of its neighbours. One critic delightfully proclaims that it displays her “sheer joy in the act of creation”. The figures take the costume of the historical period depicted – no centurions as armoured knights or High Priests dressed as Turkish merchants! So that the spirit of her window is at once medieval, modern and timeless. She undertook all the craft processes herself to beautiful effect so that Neil Moat could declare, “It is quite simply one of the best windows in the cathedral”.
It is perhaps appropriate that her window stands opposite the sculptor Frederick Pomeroy’s monument to Bishop Arthur Thomas Lloyd (d.1907) – Pomeroy was directly responsible for Townshend’s first commission on Tyneside. There is a little enclave to former Bishops nearby. At the far end, a tablet to Edgar Jacob, the second Bishop of Newcastle and a lovely brass memorial to Earnest Arthur Wilberforce, the very first Bishop of Newcastle. Ernest was the grandson of the great William Wilberforce, the anti-slave trader and member of the famous Clapham Sect. However, I think these are both well overshadowed by Pomeroy’s monument to Bishop Lloyd. It is a magnificent, almost lifelike marble tombstone with angels at the feet and framed with a superb filigree canopy. Take a careful look and see if you can spot the gremlins – or mischievous imps. There is more than one, and I am sure they move around… Newcastle’s fine answer to Lincoln Cathedral! Before becoming Bishop, Arthur Lloyd was the Vicar at St Nicholas and was instrumental in restoring the Church from its parlous state. He was thrilled to return as its fourth Bishop and loved Newcastle as much as Newcastle loved him. Thousands came to show their respect at his funeral. A modest man loved for his personal goodness and sincerity.
Just a passageway to the loos, hey! Not at all. A corridor, yes, but a wonderful one, and if a trip to the loo demands you pass so much that is worth pausing upon in a great hurry, you could always take a more leisurely return journey.
Update (July 2021): The second part of this two-part blog post has been published and can be found here.
Newcastle Cathedral’s Common Ground in Sacred Space project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is due for completion in summer 2021 – with a reopening date to be announced soon.